Cast your mind back to the end of last season. If you’d then told a Celtic fan, any Celtic fan, that three months into the current campaign Patrick Roberts would be left kicking his heels on the bench because James Forrest was playing so well, they’d laugh hard in your face. A contract running down, off the back of a poor 2015/16 campaign, Forrest appeared to be on his way out of the door. Roberts, on the other hand, was the new golden boy of Celtic Park. While comparisons to Leo Messi were over the top, he was understandably regarded as the player Celtic needed to perform if they were going to do anything in Europe. He was an X-factor. Someone of immense skill capable of turning nothing into something. An incredible talent fans could look back on in years time and think “boy, I can’t believe we once had him”. And yet, the reality currently facing the Manchester City prodigy is that of a bench warmer.
His situation mirrors the one facing Leigh Griffiths. Both started the season very well, picked up an untimely injury and haven’t been able to force themselves back into the starting XI thanks to the form of those in their position. As an aside, though it’s highly doubtful this would enter Brendan Rodgers’ mind when making his selection, the club must be happy Forrest and Dembele are winning their individual squad battles so far. After all, Roberts is not Celtic’s property, while Dembele has future sell on potential far greater than Griffiths.
It’s a surprising turn of events. Forrest looked certain to be leaving Celtic at the end of last season, having turned down a contract extension earlier in the year. In fact, the unusual expiration of his previous deal is probably the main reason he’s still at Celtic now. Had it been due to expire in the summer, rather than December, it’s highly likely another team would have snapped him up on a pre-contract deal, if he hadn’t already been released by the managerless club. According to Forrest, he always wanted to stay, so a quest for first-team football must have been the reason behind the initial rejection. When Rodgers came in, the slate was wiped clean, and in August he penned a new deal.
Even then, Celtic fans were thoroughly underwhelmed with the news. Retaining the likes of James Forrest was not the kind of marquee signing they had in mind when Rodgers took over, but with each passing week they’ve become increasingly relieved he did commit his future to the club. And there’s a good chance they will be again come 4pm on Sunday evening.
Some fans and pundits have wondered if Patrick Roberts will get the nod. It’s good to change the team up from time to time, and Rodgers may be wary of showing Rangers exactly the same starting XI (barring a change at goalkeeper) as the last Old Firm game. Also, Forrest had a quiet evening against Borussia Monchengladbach, and may struggle with the demand of playing two high octane encounters in the space of five days, while Roberts will have the added motivation of playing himself back into the starting right midfield spot.
Having said all that, keeping Forrest in the line-up gives Rodgers a tactical edge. He’s exactly the type of player Rangers have struggled to deal with throughout Mark Warburton’s tenure: he’s direct and fast. Really, really fast. A susceptibility to pace in behind the defence is the biggest shortcoming of a high-pressing, possession based system, which Rangers use. Especially when you take into account the importance of the full-backs to the attack. Either Lee Wallace, who’ll be going head-to-head with Forrest, will continue to surge forward, thereby leaving his post, or he stays back and blunts his side’s attack.
In the last game between the sides, Celtic started strong and dominated throughout the match. One of the biggest reasons they were able to stamp their mark on the game was the out-ball to Forrest. His desire to stay wide, combined with a narrow Rangers back four when they weren’t in possession, meant he was often available for a pass. While Celtic’s system is advertised as a 4-2-3-1, in practice it becomes a misshapen 3-5-2. Kieran Tierney pushes high up the park from full-back, Scott Sinclair drifts inside, and Mikael Lustig counteracts any potential gaps by shading over from right-back to central defence. It weights the play towards Celtic’s left side, since that’s where two of their best players operate, which draws the opposition to that flank and gives Forrest a lot of room in which to operate. In the 5-1 match, Celtic went to Forrest four times in the opening 10 minutes, and executed a pair of big switches from the left back spot all the way out to the right wing. The picture included near the top of the article illustrates how much room he was granted.
Roberts, by contrast, does his best work in tight spaces. He uses quick feet rather than fast legs to leave opponents in his wake. He does have a more consistent final ball than Forrest, but the latter has improved tremendously on that front. Forrest, in 18 matches, has five goals and five assists so far this season. Both of those totals are already better than what he managed across 33 appearances last term. Furthermore, if Rodgers finds himself needing a goal in the final stages, the trickery of Roberts will be of more use than the pace of Forrest, against an opponent retreating into their own half as they look to defend a lead.